In the Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, there was a very wealthy man named Joachim. And he used to double the gifts he offered to the Lord, saying to himself, "One portion from my abundance will be for all the people; the other portion for forgiveness will be for the Lord God as my sin-offering."
Now the great day of the Lord was approaching, and the children of Israel were offering their gifts. And Reubel stood before him and said, "You are not permitted to offer your gifts first because you have not produced an offspring in Israel." (1:1-5, pp. 49-50)
Summary: Perhaps the most convenient way to think of the Protevangelium is to think of it as the ancestor of the Christmas pageant. The Christmas pageant puts the stories of Matthew and Luke together into a single narrative; the way this is done has less to do with the Gospels than just the kind of story you are using to put them together. For instance, despite the fact that the most natural reading of the beginning of Matthew suggests that the visit of the Magi is quite a bit later than the birth itself, in a Christmas pageant one just has the Three Kings arriving around the same time as the shepherds; they are three not because the Gospel says that but because they are said to bring three gifts. We often depict an ox and an ass; neither are from the Gospels but are symbols from Isaiah 1:3 plausibly literalized given the rest of the story. Other features of a Christian pageant aren't from either Gospel or prophecy but are instead aids to imagination (like comic sidekicks, visual gags, or highly stylized symbols). The author of the Protevangelium is crafting his narrative in very much the same ways.
Joachim is an extremely wealthy man in all ways but one: he and his wife Anna have no child. This is not merely a personal inconvenience, as it actively prevents them from participating in the religious life of their people in the way that they feel called to do. Joachim therefore goes into the wilderness and fasts for forty days and forty nights, while Anna at home prays for a child like Sarah before her, lamenting her fate as a barren woman. Then the angel of the Lord appears and lets her know that she will bear a famous offspring; in thanks, Anna vows that the child, whether boy or girl, will be consecrated to the service of the Lord. Joachim, who has also been visited by an angel, returns and in rejoicing they both pay for a very great sacrifice not only for themselves but for all the people of Israel. Eventually a daughter is born, and her name is Mary. The two parents decide to keep her for a few years, so that she will have the benefit of knowing her parents, but Anna turns Mary's bedroom into a sort of sanctuary in anticipation of the time when they will bring Mary to the Temple to be formally devoted to God. Mary is taken up to the Temple at the age of three, and is accepted by the priests; she dances for joy "and the whole house of Israel loved her" (7:10). Mary stays in the Temple, "nurtured like a dove, receiving her food from the hand of an angel" (8:2).
However, even holy girls grow up, and the priests eventually start worrying about what to do once Mary reaches puberty. They therefore decide that she should be married to a man who will be her guardian; the work is never very explicit, but it's clear from how the story unfolds that their idea is that she will continue to be a virgin devoted to the service of the Temple, but will be married to a man who will be her guardian. They hold a sacred lottery, and the carpenter Joseph is chosen to be the guardian. Joseph thinks it's absurd that he, an elderly man, should be marrying such a young woman, but the priests more or less browbeat him into accepting. (One of the interesting features of the story as told here is that while Joseph always does right by Mary, he absolutely does not want to be married to her and is extremely embarrassed by the whole affair.)
Joseph has houses to build, so he has to leave Mary alone for an extended period of time. The priests in the meantime need a new curtain for the Temple, so by lottery they assign tasks in its making to virgins devoted to the Temple; Mary gets the task of spinning threads of purple and scarlet (which, of course, are an omen representing royalty and priesthood). It is during the period that she is spinning the thread that the angel comes to her in the Annunciation. A curious feature of the story in the Protevangelium is the Mary not long after goes on to forget the event. This is not explained at all, but it's possible that the author intends this not to be unexplained amnesia but rather that she forgot that it was real -- i.e., she convinces herself that it was just a dream or something similar. In any case, she does forget it, so is surprised when she visits her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth says she is blessed; she is actively distraught when she realizes that she has become pregnant.
Joseph, of course, finds out about the pregnancy, and assuming that she has been seduced by someone while he was away, feels guilty about not having protected her. However, Mary is sufficiently convincing that this is not the case, that he does not know what to do. He decides to divorce her in secret, but is prevented by a dream from an angel. Things are not so easy, though, because one of the scribes, Annas, discovers Mary's pregnancy, and Joseph and Mary are hauled before the priests, and when they try to defend themselves as innocent, are accused of lying. The priests have them both drink "the water of conviction" (16:3), a procedure they use in such cases when people are not confessing; they both have to drink and spend some time in the wilderness. But they both pass the test. The priests are not sure what to make of this, but they can't condemn someone God refuses to condemn, so Joseph and Mary are allowed to go home.
A decree goes out from King Augustus that everyone from Bethelehm of Judea be registered for a census; Joseph will register his sons, but he is flummoxed as to how he should state Mary's relation to him. They head to Bethlehem, but as they get close, Mary has a vision and goes into labor, so Joseph in the emergency finds a cave for her to give birth in, and goes out to find a midwife. The narrative then has a strange shift -- in third person up to this point, it now switches to Joseph speaking in the first person. As he's searching, he experiences a strange event in which time seems to stand still for a moment, then meets up with the midwife. (Joseph stumbles badly through trying to explain his relation to Mary.) Joseph and the midwife return to the cave (the narrative switches back to third person), but the cave is covered with a dark cloud which suddenly dissipates in the face of a great and blinding light shining from within the cave, which decreases until they see at the center of it an infant: Mary has given birth to a son. The midwife leaves and tells another woman, Salome, that she has seen a virgin give birth in a miracle; Salome regards this as absurd, but the midwife brings her to Mary. Salome tests Mary's virginity with a finger and is amazed to find the hymen intact, but perhaps in the moment is more amazed to find her hand catching fire. She prays in repentance to God, and an angel appears to her telling her that God accepts her repentance, and that she will be healed if she holds the child, which she does and is. A voice then tells her to keep this all a secret until the child goes to Jerusalem.
We then have another shift; we are told that Joseph is preparing to go to Judea. This is sometimes taken to indicate that the author is muddled about geography, but it could very well be that the author is simply indicating that the next events only occur some time later (and, in fact, given how the rest of the story unfolds, this is almost certainly the case). There is a great commotion in Bethlehem of Judea because Magi had come to King Herod asking about the newborn King of the Jews, with the result that Herod orders all children in the area around Bethlehem who are under two years of age to be killed. Mary, being frightened for her child, swaddles him in clothes and lays him in a manger. This is a somewhat odd behavior; not all manuscripts seem to have it, so it might be an odd interpolation, but in any case, the idea is clear -- she's trying to hide the child. Elizabeth also tries to hide her child, but cannot find a hiding place, so at her prayer an angel hides her in a mountain to protect her. Herod, however, has heard of Elizabeth's child and tries to bully Zechariah into saying where his son is hid; Zechariah protests that he can't possibly know because he has been serving in the Temple. The result is that Zechariah is murdered at dawn before the altars of the Lord, and the priests and the people are in fear and lamentation.
And at that, the Protevangelium essentially ends, with a note saying that the account was written by James.
It's a remarkable story, with the movement from lamentation to lamentation, the deliberate refusal to create any kind of happy ending in the narrative itself, and its occasionally very vivid description. The author in drawing from very disparate sources manages to make an interesting whole. It is not a smooth whole, though; there are clear seams, and the first-person narrative of Joseph, one of the most remarkable and vivid parts of the book, suddenly disrupts the narrative and then fades back out. However, even that seems to have a certain artistry, because it comes at exactly the right time to heighten the preparation for the climax of the book, which is, of course, the Nativity. Joseph is in many ways the most interestingly characterized person; I suspect that most Christians would not particularly like this version of Joseph, but he is a very three-dimensional character here, a just man but heavily motivated by fear and embarrassment. The Protevangelium is not a perfunctory telling of legends; we are getting not merely stories, but the author's very vivid imagining of the events, and it sometimes results in excellent details, both symbolic details and details of character. I don't think it's surprising that the work has exercised the influence it has; just on purely literary grounds it is in some ways a very impressive work.
Favorite Passage: This curious passage is just an astoundingly good bit of description and I would imagine the earliest literary depiction of the idea of time stopping:
And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and to the air and saw it seized in amazement, and the birds of the sky were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers reclining around it with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not lifting it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward; And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them with a rod, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the flowing river and I saw some young goats with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything returned to its course. (18:3-11;, pp. 95-96)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended. I actually just expected that it would be a 'Recommended', but in this closer reading of the work, I was very impressed by the artistry of much of it.
The Protevangelium of James, Lily C. Vuong, tr., Early Christian Apocrypha 7, Cascade Books (Eugene, OR: 2019).